Oppenheimer Road Trip: Visiting The Trinity Site with the Nissan Pathfinder

Nissan Pathfinder SUV in front of sand dune, White Sands National Park

by Michael Satterfield -  Updated 07/02/2023

Driving into White Sands National Park in southwestern New Mexico feels like you have just landed on an alien planet. The white sand is the largest gypsum desert in the world with dunes rising as high as sixty feet. As you enter the park, past a classic 80s Ford Ranger that is still serving the US Forest Service, the sand transitions from beige to pristine white. The park service maintains a road that is cut through the sand and makes White Sands one of the most accessible of the national parks. Just a few miles away is the White Sands Missile Range, where J. Robert Oppenheimer conducted the first atomic bomb, believe it or not, twice a year you can visit the Trinity Site. 

For our trip, we are driving the brand new Nissan Pathfinder Platinum, an appropriate vehicle for exploring the desert in style. This refined new Pathfinder is on par with the best SUVs in this segment like the Land Rover Discovery and Jeep Grand Cherokee, while the original Pathfinder from my childhood was known for its rugged body on frame and go-anywhere four-wheel-drive, the new unibody Pathfinder is less about blazing new trails through the wilderness while still offering a competent all-wheel-drive system for those times you do leave the pavement. 

We took the Pathfinder on some dirt roads and sandy trails and the intelligent 4x4 system simply requires a flip of the switch to go into various modes, sand, snow, mud, etc... The new Pathfinder still has Nissan's tried-and-true 284-hp 3.5-liter V-6 engine, the new nine-speed automatic transmission which replaces the previous models' continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) is a major improvement. The Platinum model brings all the luxury you would expect from a luxury brand, if you removed the badges most consumers would have a hard time guessing it was a Nissan. It is also packed with new technology like Nissan's ProPilot driver assistance system which makes traveling those long stretches of highway far more enjoyable. While the great touch screen and steering-wheel-mounted controls are excellent, Nissan has kept the volume and tuning knobs which is an underrated feature many manufacturers overlook. 

San Dunes, White Sands National Park

To visit this amazing park, you really have to plan to be going there, it isn't on the way to anything and is fully surrounded by military installations that are part of the White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base. The closest major city is El Paso, which is an hour and a half south, Albuquerque is three and half hours northwest, so it is a road trip destination even if you fly to New Mexico. When planning your trip, be sure to add Roswell, New Mexico to your itinerary and take the long way on Highway 82 through the mountain community of Cloudcroft, which takes you from the desert up into a beautiful alpine town famous for apples and a popular skiing destination.  

SUV parked at foot of sand dune

While you can simply drive the road around the park and climb a few dunes, the best way to experience the park is by taking one of the many hiking trails that are offered. 

  • Alkali Flat Trail: This 5-mile roundtrip hike, is not flat as you make your way up and down sand dunes. There is little shade so be sure to pack plenty of water and wear appropriate desert hiking attire.  
  • Backcountry Camping Trail: At 2-miles, this is one of the easier hikes and a great one for getting photos that show the vastness of the dunes. You will be climbing some dunes along the way so be prepared.
  • Dune Life Nature Trail: A 1-mile loop, this trail is marked with signs detailing the wildlife that call White Sands home, a short hike, but it does have two sand dunes you will have to climb. 
  • Interdune Boardwalk: As the name suggests this is not really a hike, the entire route is on a wooden boardwalk over the sand giving access to wheelchairs or people with stability issues when walking on sand. It is a little less than half a mile and has signage that explains the plant and animal life of the park. 
  • Playa Trail: An easy hike that is just a half-mile that ends at White Sand Playa, the playa is always changing sometimes filled with waters other times it is dry. But it offers unique photo opportunities. 
Sunset hikes are very popular at the park, but make sure to bring a light if you plan on staying out to watch the stars come out. From April to October full moon hikes offer a truly otherworldly experience. If hiking isn't your thing, sand sledding is another popular activity at the park and if you don't bring your own sled and wax you can purchase them at the park visitor center. Sledding is allowed anywhere in the park, however, avoid sledding that could damage plant life or end up in the roadway. 

If you don't plan on camping, the town of Alamogordo is nearby and has a number of hotels and restaurants for nearly any budget. The city also is home to the Alameda Park Zoo, the New Mexico Museum of Space History, and the Toy Train Depot which is perfect for train lovers. 35 miles north, outside of the village of Tularosa, you'll find the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site where over 21,000 petroglyphs dating back to between 400 and 1450 AD can be seen. 

Trinity Site Marker, White Sands Missile Range

If you are planning your trip in April or October, the White Sands Missile Range opens the Trinity Site to the public for two days each year, space is limited and the site is still highly restricted so be sure to plan well ahead of time to visit the historic site. It is a simple monument, marking the place where J. Robert Oppenheimer's team from Los Alamos tested the first nuclear device. For dates and information on visiting the Trinity Site Open House dates click here

2022 Nissan Pathfinder parked on Sand Dune

Places like White Sands are what road trips are all about, getting off the interstate and exploring the small towns, scenic byways, and places most people will never see for themselves, if you love road trips be sure to check out my Great Road Trips Series on YouTube.